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James Ward RA’s ‘Defence of the Beard’

The RA's Archivist discovers a hidden gem

Published 15 July 2014

A small pamphlet, discovered deep within our archives, shows that the beard as the defining feature of hipster facial fashion has been around longer than you might think.

  • One of the pleasures of working with archives is the opportunity it provides for serendipitous discovery, when an item of wilful obscurity takes on contemporary relevance. One such item is a small pamphlet, held within our archives, by James Ward RA, titled, Defence of the Beard.

    There has been much recent media comment about the wide popularity of male hipster style, particularly the beard. Last year Emily Saner wrote in The Guardian on the subject and used an analogy from the oil industry to suggest that we had reached ‘peak beard’.

  • James Ward RA's 'Defence of the Beard'

    James Ward RA's 'Defence of the Beard'

  • Things have since moved on and, to stretch the analogy a little further, it appears that men are now fracking the beard on a national scale. In the movie Withnail & I the character of Danny the drug-dealer puts it very eloquently, “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man.” Mass adoption and the concomitant loss of edgy credibility may once again lead to the gradual disappearance of big beards from our British streets.

  • 1. Nature gave the Beard; it is, therefore, unnatural to cut it off.

    James Ward RA

  • This is not the first time that male facial hair has been the subject of major national debate. During the second quarter of the 19th-century British men stopped shaving. Initially the beard was associated with political radicalism and the avant garde (sound familiar?), but in the 1850s the beard began a slow trajectory towards the centre of British masculine identity. The advance of the beard was a cultural project supported by major figures in literature and fine art. James Ward, a painter latterly of very full beard, prepared his own tract on the subject which was privately published, possibly some time in the 1840s.

  • James Ward RA, James Ward

    James Ward RA, James Ward, 1848.

    Oil on canvas. 61.6 mm x 52.7cm. © National Portrait Gallery. Given by G.R. Ward, 1870.

  • Ward was a hugely successful animal painter but had spent his childhood in desperate poverty, bottle-washing on the banks of the Thames. This formative experience led to a combative, adversarial approach in his professional life. He was an intensely religious man with strongly held opinions. Defence of the Beard is punctuated with quotations from scripture, but also strange, though widely accepted, medical claims and a large dose of the sort of reflexive misogyny that characterised the age.

    The pamphlet is an awkward collision of the reactionary and the radical but has since found its way into an academic debate on Victorian masculinity. A central concern of this debate is the anxiety that arose among British men in the face of rapidly changing gender politics. Some sections of male society continue to fret on this subject, but perhaps the primary correlation between bearded pioneers of the 1850s and today’s hirsute legions lies in another anxiety - that caused by technological and environmental change. In both Ward’s time and another brief high-noon of hairiness - the late 1960s, the beard became a physical expression of natural order, untrammelled by human hand.

  • 12. The Beard keeps the neck warm, and at the same times leaves it at full liberty.

    James Ward RA

  • It is said that the inception of today’s Hipster beard came from Brooklynites aping the look of American Frontiersmen, emblematic of a time when the North American continent remained untamed. Of all James Ward’s deeply held convictions it is this fear of the consequences of humanity’s domination over the natural order that brings him closest to our contemporary outlook.

    *James Ward was elected a Royal Academician in 1811.
    See more by James Ward RA in our Collection. *

    Mark Pomeroy is the Archivist at the RA.